By Christopher P. Winner
on't miss it. Don't be late. Be prepared. Be prompt. Honor your pledges. The mantras of my 20th0-century youth later came as work orders fixated on more or the same. Make sense. Make deadline. Support your assertions.
The burdens of responsibility were all the harder to ignore when your elders, father, teacher, and colleagues, hewed to them daily. They kept the pace and even advanced it at times, usually without being told to, often without financial reward, indulging idiosyncratic methods along the way.
In Rome, after the death of a pope, the British religion correspondent of our agency arrived from London like clockwork to make sense of the arcane jibes that came with curial succession. He was a man in his 40s who spoke little, smiled graciously, and told wry jokes.
After lunches at a local trattoria in the center of Rome he'd excuse himself to take a walk and ponder the sede vacante. A ridiculous conceit, at least seen now, when those who write for a living are expected to deliver instantly, constantly, socially, in diluted drips and drabs, all of which social media sees as proof of life, however unconsidered. The correspondent from London instead made his ritual stroll, no one knew to where, returning mid-afternoon to gently type dispatches that contained some of the wisest and most elegant material I've ever read about the Vatican. His intelligence seemed to come from nowhere but in fact came very much from the somewhere called reflection, as the refinement of insight usually does. He was prepared. He knew what to write and when. He never allowed an analysis to creep past 750 words.
Preparedness and timing nearly tripped me up a year later when I applied for a Rome-based job in London. I arrived late by five minutes, which the agency's slender Count Dracula of a boss didn't mention aloud but alluded to by glancing at his Omega wristwatch before shaking his hand and encouraging the watch to migrate from the end of his forearm. I remember the gesture just as I remember the moment in the interview when he shrewdly switched not from English to Italian — which I'd expected given the job's location — but to French, because my resume noted I was born in Paris and spoke French fluently. But I did not speak it fluently — fluency implies grace — at least not any more. He, Swiss-Hungarian, had grace to spare. I escaped that trap, or so it seemed, until the end of the interview, when he squared the circle. "Be careful what you tell people you can do. They might expect you to do it." His was an early warning about the risks of lazy self-promotion. Being prepared was a pledge to one's capacities.
Like the Pledge of Allegiance, which I remember reciting in school daily as a boy. One nation under God, it went, followed by the word "indivisible," a word since betrayed in spirit by an era in which both political and cultural discourse vehemently celebrates the divisive.
When I began my eccentric jottings in this space — I named the column Area 51 to dote on my quirks— I promised never to miss a week, no matter what. That was in 2004. And I did not miss a week until 2016, when my diseased eyesight briefly blinkered off.
I've since missed several turns, and may yet miss more, both my eyes now conspiring to pit malady against commitment in a battle disinterested malady inevitably wins.
Yet I still hear the phrases I've heard from the start: Don't miss it. Don't be late. Be prepared. Honor your pledges. I still believe in the responsibility of the calling, if only, pen to paper, I could see the scripted message as clearly as I did once. I cannot. So yes, I'll be late to my appointed rounds, but no less intent on making them.
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In Prague at the turn of the century, watching (and overhearing) left a journalist with ample room to scribble.
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When a literature professor retired 35 years ago, he rued a world of ruffled civility. Little could he imagine the next phase.
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